Vikram’s Star Turn Has Support From Real-Life Son Dhruv Vikram -2.5 stars

Mahaan: A still from the film. (courtesy: Imdb)

Cast: Vikram, Dhruv Vikram, Simran, Bobby Simha, and Vani Bhojan with Sananth, Vettai Muthukumar, Deepak Paramesh and Aadukalam Naren

Director: Karthik Subbaraj

Rating: Two and a half stars (Out of 5)

Karthik Subbaraj’s overlong Tamil crime drama Mahaan, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, alternates between the massy and the trashy but it does so with unapologetic flair. That is not to suggest that the film’s erratic trajectory deflects lead actor Vikram from his path in any way. He holds firm and carries the film on his shoulders.

Vikram’s oft-proven histrionic range is on full display as he transforms himself first from being an orthodox, middle-aged family man to an ageing rebel with a questionable cause and then from a king of the liquor mafia to a father torn between his paternal instincts and his loyalty to a boyhood friend.

But does the impressive star turn have the power to salvage a patchy film that struggles to find an emotional core for its story about the limits of freedom, the perils of militant conservatism and an all-out clash between a father and a son? The two men stand on opposite sides of a moral divide and face off in a fight that endangers many lives.

Unfortunately, neither the ethical questions that arise nor the emotional complications that are triggered by the father-son confrontation assume proportions that can elevate Mahaan to the heights that could do justice to the title. The film’s gloss is strictly surface level.

The general quality of the acting is of a high order. Vikram has support from his real-life son, Dhruv Vikram, cast as his estranged screen son. The cast of the film includes Simran, Bobby Simha, Sananth and Muthukumar in the role of the principal antagonist.

Vikram plays a man from a Gandhian family who is stifled by the burden that his name, Gandhi Mahaan, puts on him. In one of the early scenes following a prelude set in 1968 – it shows three village boys playing a card game that ends in a violent scuffle – it is revealed that the boy’s grandfather was a freedom fighter, his father an anti-liquor activist. Gandhi’s best pal, Sathyavan is, in contrast, the only son of a toddy brewer.

Cut to 1996. On Gandhi Mahaan’s 40th birthday, the staid commerce teacher decides that he has had enough of unquestioning adherence to the morals and principles enjoined upon him by his lineage. He throws caution to the wind. He gambles and drinks himself silly in a bar owned by Sathyavan, with whom he reconnects in the city quite by chance.

That one bacchanalian night changes the course of Gandhi Mahaan‘s life forever. In a drunken state, he kicks up a huge kerfuffle when he returns home with Sathyavan (Bobby Simha) and the latter’s son Rocky (Sananth). A couple of slaps and angry words are exchanged. Matters spiral out of control and Gandhi’s wife Nachi (Simran) and son Dada leave him for good. Soon after, the landlord orders the man to vacate the house.

Left to his own devices, the hero bounces back quickly by setting up a liquor empire in partnership with Sathyavan, finds a son in Rocky and makes rapid strides in the business with a mix of calculated risks and strongarm tactics. At one point, Gandhi Mahaan admits that while he has the gift of the gab, he isn’t particularly adept at using his fists. But don’t let that declaration fool you.

For a high-octane drama that centres on crime and vengeance, Mahaan is sparing in its use of action sequences but the ones that are mounted bear an unmistakable Karthik Subbaraj stamp. Especially noteworthy is a long sequence in which Gandhi Mahaan is caught between his estranged son Dada (Dhruv Vikram), now a viciously uncompromising special task force policeman who has been detailed with the task of wiping out Gandhi Mahaan’s gang, and Rocky, the young man who is like a son.

Dada’s return into Gandhi Mahaan’s life – it is Dhruv Vikram’s entry scene – is also staged with some panache. The young actor, up against the seasoned Vikram, holds his own. It is, of course, no cakewalk. There are times that Dhruv Vikram’s effort to ensure that he isn’t eclipsed begins to show.

His grand moniker notwithstanding, the protagonist, in collusion with the third friend from the opening sequence, Gnanam (Muthukumar), a corrupt politician who wins elections on an anti-alcohol plank but is in cahoots with the liquor lobby, rises to the top of the heap when Dada and his men arrive out of the blue and decide to rain on his party.

More trouble brews when the crooked politician has his own ideas and runs afoul of Gandhi Mahaan and Sathyavan. When the liquor king meets Gnanam in the company of Sathyavan and Rocky in his grand ministerial office plastered with portraits of Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi and APJ Abdul Kalam, sparks fly and set the stage for the final leg of the film.

Neither the making of the film, which alternates between the overly flashy and the drably sedate, nor the background score and songs composed by Santhosh Narayanan, which incorporate dollops of hip hop, is exceptional. Mahaan is overlong, sluggish in parts and way too superficial for its convoluted message to attain clarity.

If the film still manages not to be a complete washout, it is because of the energetic performances, the occasional visual flourishes that Karthik Subbaraj packs into the film and the solid camerawork by Shreyaas Krishna, who imparts a distinct feel and texture to the frames.

That apart, there are at least a couple of takeaways from Mahaan. In one scene, the minister preens that he isn’t given to issuing multiple threats like “a movie villain”. I am a certified politician, he says, “a real villain”. The favourite whipping boy of contemporary Indian cinema thus makes his presence felt in Mahaan.

In another flash of striking insight, the hero asserts that those who seek to forcibly impose their ideals on others are no better than those that flout all laws of acceptable behaviour. Both are extremists, he says, harking back to the line (attributed to Mahatma Gandhi) that Mahaan opens with: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”

Mahaan grabs that freedom with both hands – like the eponymous character, it makes its share of mistakes and lives to tell the tale because Vikram injects just enough variety into it with a performance that serves to temper some of the film’s excesses.

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